Celebrating Richard Holeton’s Figurski

Since January 2021, the Electronic Literature Lab has been working on migrating Richard Holeton’s comedic hypertext novel, Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. in 2001 to an open-access, archival version created in HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript. The project has been completed and is being tested for final release at https://figurskiatfindhornonacid.com. A formal celebration will take place on Friday, July 9, from 10-11 a.m. PDT via Zoom. I want to acknowledge the team involved in bringing Figurski back to the public: Betsy Hanrahan, Kathleen Zoller, and Holly Slocum were the prime movers; Sarah West and Dave Sabrowski assisted; and as always Greg Philbrook, the lab’s tech guru, was present for underlying support and advice. I conceptualized the project and wrote copy; and of course, our wonderful author, Richard Holeton, guided us all. It should be that all but Richard hail from the Creative Media & Digital Culture program at Washington State University Vancouver. 

Here is my introduction from the project site that explains the process of moving a work created in proprietary software for stand-alone computers to the web.



Migration as Translation: Moving Figurski  to the Web
by Dene Grigar, with research support by Kathleen Zoller, Holly Slocum, Betsy Hanrahan, Dave Sabrowski, Sarah West, and Greg Philbrook; Electronic Literature Lab, Washington State University Vancouver

Traduttore e traditore.”   [The translator betrays.]

Migrating an early hypertext novel originally created with proprietary software programmed in C and published on a removeable disk, to HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript for the World Wide Web, as we have done for Richard Holeton’s Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, is an act of translation––one involving not only the translation of its code, but also of its interface design and its functionality. As such, translation impacts our experience with the work, ultimately betraying it as some aspects of it becomes lost in the effort to make it found by a new audience. In a digital translation aimed at restoring access to a work that has become technologically obsolete, the gain is so much greater than the loss. In the case of Figurski, especially, it means that we can now again read one of the most unique and quirky interactive novels of the early 21stCentury.

This translation of Holeton’s novel to the web constitutes Phase 1 of Version 7.0 of the work. Having begun in 1996 as a short, short story for the print journal Grain Magazine for its “Postcard Story Contest,” Figurski continued to take shape in various iterations, both for print and digital contexts, until it was released on Storyspace 2.0 for Macintosh computers on CD-ROM in 2001 by Eastgate Systems, Inc. This version, Version 3.0, has been identified by Holeton as the canonical version of the work. The PC version, Version 4.0––in production since 2000––came out later in 2001, while Versions 5.0 and 6.0 were produced by the author in 2008 in Storyspace 3.0 but remain unpublished to this day. Though this web-based version, Version 7.0, is not intended to replace the canonical Macintosh version or Version 4.0 still available from the publisher, it does however accomplish an important goal: It makes Figurski accessible to an audience who no longer own computers able to run its software or include CD-ROM drives needed for accessing its format and/or have, since 2007, embraced mobile devices as the primary mode of communication and information-gathering.

This 20thAnniversary Edition of Figurski has been undertaken by members of the Electronic Literature Lab at Washington State University Vancouver with work beginning in September 2020. The project entails the production of an open-access archival version of the work presented in two modes: a Classic mode simulating the original look and feel of the canonical Macintosh version, and a Contemporary mode updating the interface design for a 21stcentury audience. Additionally, the creation of this archival version is intended to take place in two phases, with Phase 1, released on May 15, 2021, providing the foundation for the Scholarly Edition envisioned as Phase 2 planned for release in 2022.

Because the project has coincided with the university shut-down during the pandemic, one of the first steps taken was to disseminate legacy Macintosh computers held in the lab with the requisite operating systems and CD-ROM drives along with a copy of Figurski to each team member for reading and studying the work at home. Adhering to the Pathfinders methodology that necessitates the use of “historically appropriate equipment” to “ensure fidelity to the original product” (Moulthrop and Grigar 7), we selected the G3 iMac All-In-One (aka “Bubble”). It was available to the public from 1998 to 2003 and, so, could have been used for accessing the work when it was published in 2001. Fortunately, the lab holds nine of them, from the original Bondi Blue released by Apple in 1998, to several from the “Life Savers” series (specifically, the Tangerine and Blueberry) released in 1999, to the Graphite Bubble released in 2000. All of the computers from this series were designed with only CD-ROM drives with processors ranging from 233 MHz to 500 MHz. The variety of operating systems, from System Software 8.1 originally running on the Bondi Blue iMac to System Software 9.2 running on the 2000 Graphite iMac (along with Mac OS X 10.4.9), provided insights into the loading speeds of the work on various systems.

Leading the project for Phase 1 was Betsy Hanrahan who also served as its web developer, creating the HTML templates for the 354 lexias, re-creating the 2001 links found in the work, and developing all of the scripting for the project. Kathleen Zoller developed the content for all lexias and served as the project’s documentarian. Dave Sabrowski was brought in toward the end of the project to assist with all aspects of the code. Holly Slocum, the lab’s Project Manager, designed the interface and implemented the CSS. Sarah West was also brought in later in the project to provide assistance with the production of most of the images. Greg Philbrook, the lab’s technical assistant, shared his expertise with the web development and ensured needed technical resources. Dene Grigar, the lab’s Director, provided historical and cultural insights into the work and led the overall conceptualization of the migration.

Changes to Figurski
Translating Figurski into a new format two decades after its initial release required many decisions for changes to the original. These fall into four areas: Visual, Navigational, Functional, and Textual. 

Visual Changes
One of the first decisions related to developing the interface design was determining how close to the original our Classic mode could be, particularly since Storyspace was designed for authoring hypertext literary works before web browsers were available with built in affordances for creating works as well as a recognizable visual aesthetic of nodes and links. [1] Because current web languages do make it possible to capture a semblanceof the original, we opted to re-create the visual design of Version 3.0. One of the main differences remains the Toolbar, which differs greatly in the new version for both modes.

The second decision focused on the way in which the Contemporary mode would update the visual style of the original. In this regard, because contemporary audiences, influenced as they are by video games and streaming media, are accustomed to highly visual environments, we optimized the original art for higher resolution displays and added backgrounds to lexias that followed Holeton’s conventions for organizing the narrative––namely characters, places, and artifacts.

Finally, it also was clear from the outset that because the work was being recreated anew for a contemporary audience, the landing page for the project site would sport a contemporary design while also channeling aspects of the earlier Figurski style, such as the emphasis on the pig highlighted on the jewel case of the CD-ROM (and that figures in the central plot of the story). Additionally, becauseFigurski is an absurdist novel that pokes fun at counter-culture elements of the 1990s, the design retains a psychedelic aesthetic that features saturated colors and swirling motifs. Used throughout as backgrounds in the Contemporary mode, they provide a consistency for the work across its 354 lexias. It also made sense to provide links on the landing page to both modes so that readers could determine which one to follow; more importantly, the design also includes the ability for readers to switch at any time in their reading between the two modes so as to compare them.

One additional challenge was selecting fonts for the translation. The importance of fonts in early interactive media cannot be overstated. The ability to include full color images was limited by constraints to display and storage. This meant that much of the media produced was textual, with images themselves rendered as ASCII art comprised of a specific number of fixed-width characters. Figurski, published during the period when multimedia was becoming more robust, does indeed include images. At the same time its fonts had been purposely selected for specific parts of the novel in a way that helped to differentiate story sections and, so, play an important role in its design.

Unlike other hypertexts published by Eastgate Systems, Inc., such as Kathryn Cramer’s “In Small & Large Pieces” or Diane Greco’s “Cyborg: Engineering the Body Electric” that bundle special fonts with the works, however, Figurski utilizes typefaces common to Apple computers of the time. This design strategy was a boon for determining fonts for the new version. The Classic mode could retain the serif proportional font, New York, used in the canonical version, and include Georgia, a serif font created in 1993 for the Microsoft Corporation, for computers running Windows. Likewise, the monospaced font, Monaco, could be retained for the lexias associated with the “Holodeck” as they were for the original; Consolas, another monospaced font, was selected for Windows computers for those lexias. [2] Additionally, the monospaced font Courier, which had originally been introduced in 1955 for IBM typewriters and has become a staple of computers, including Macintoshes, could be used for the “Terminal.” Several other san-serif fonts could be brought over for Figurski’s“Map” and “Notes.”

Designing the Contemporary mode was not as straightforward since it required fonts that fit the updated style. The decision to retain the funky feel of the original title led to the adoption of the Adobe font, Cotton, designed by Ray Larabie, for the Contemporary mode. Described as “a mid-twentieth century style casual sans with a vintage t-shirt texture” (“Adobe Fonts”), Cotton–– with its letters slightly askew––captures the off-kilter antics of the novel’s three main characters who search for the legendary mechanical pig. Fira Sans Condensed, clean and easy to read, has been used as Figurski’s primary font, while Exo 2 supplants Monaco/Consolas for the lexias associated with the Holodeck. Courier has been retained for the Terminal.

Navigation Changes
The web languages used for this translation makes it possible to retain Figurski’slinking strategy, from the links relating to the Navigator, Map, and Notes, to its hidden links and default reading. The color coding of the links found in Version 3.0 were retained in the Classic mode, with colors as close as possible to the original. Editorial changes were made to 12 links that were incorrect in the original.

Functionality Changes
The differences in functionality between a stand-alone, CD-ROM version of Figurski and an open, responsive web-based version are both obvious and inconspicuous.

Version 3.0 is published and disseminated on physical media that requires no access to the internet for reading the novel. Readers, circa 2001, would have received in their mailbox a CD-ROM packaged in a jewel case with a brightly designed liner featuring a pig. They would have had to pierce the plastic cover protecting the jewel case and its contents before snapping open the case in order to access the CD-ROM. Next, they would have inserted the CD-ROM into the CD-ROM drive of their desktop computer and installed the work. Once installed, readers would have clicked the launcher icon––unsurprisingly featuring an image of a pig­­––to start the novel. But before the novel would appear, a dialog box would have popped up asking readers if they want to “Begin a new reading” or “Resume a previous reading.” Choosing the former, readers would have then watched as the novel load its 354 lexias and 2001 links. These actions taken to access and read Figurski two decades ago, though different from what was required for a print-based novel, still established a kind of tangible and physical relationship with it. So it is today when experiencing the work on a legacy computer.

Version 7.0, on the other hand, resides on the web and is created so that it functions on desktop computers, laptops, mobile phones, and tablets. A reader will only need to type the novel’s URL into the browser of any computing device and, depending on the broadband speed of their internet service, can fairly quickly access the work. No installation is required. No launcher icon with a pig appears. No dialog box loads links and nodes. Thus, the physicality apparent in the original is lost, transforming the relationship between reader and tangible object holding the work––the CD-ROM––to one of a reader and the work itself as it is instantiated by code.

One characteristic of the original version we were able to simulate is the dialogue box, mentioned previously, that shows the nodes and links as they load the work. Produced with a JavaScript modal, the simulation is aimed to provide readers with this experience so notable when they engaged with Storyspace hypertexts.

Textual Changes
Textual changes to Figurskiare minor ones that fix spelling, usage, and grammar errors as well as errors found in references and citations. To guide our editing, we used the original script Holeton made available to the lab and worked directly with him on the final output.

Migration Is Translation a Third Time
Close to 50 years ago Hans-Georg Gadamer argued that “reading is already translation, and translation is translation for the second time” (Gadamer, in Biguenet and Schulte, ix). For Figurski, reading is also impacted by its migration from Storyspace software and physical media to the web languages and web, adding a third layer to the translation process of the work, for it is not just translation of the code from C to HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript, but the changes, also, to the format of the work that results in a different sensory experience and a different way of reading the work. Lost is the intimacy established with touching the tangible object and the sense of it belonging to us personally. Gained, however, is something more important that should be celebrated: We can now again read one of the most unique and quirky interactive novels of the early 21stCentury.

Version 7.0 of Figurski at Findhorn on Acidis like all other translated works in that it represents a new work of art, a new experience, a new way of reading the novel. The Electronic Literature Lab is delighted to make this new version of Holeton’s novel widely accessible to the public again.



[1] N. Katherine Hayles identifies the Storyspace School in her book, Electronic Literature.

[2] Both Monaco and New York were designed by Susan Kare for the Apple Corporation in 1984. See “Susan Kare.” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Kare

Works Cited

“Adobe Fonts.” https://fonts.adobe.com/fonts/cotton#fonts-section.

Biguenet, John and Rainer Schulte. The Craft of Translation. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Moulthrop, Stuart and Dene Grigar. Traversals: The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing. Cambridge, MA. The MIT Press, 2017.

Dene Grigar is Director and Professor of the CMDC Program. She specializes in electronic literature, emerging technologies and cognition, and ephemera.